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March 21st, 2016

Anyone for chocolate? How do we learn self-control?

Even families who aren’t at all religious may practice certain rituals around Easter that fall on opposite ends of the consumption spectrum. At the beginning of Lent I know many who take the opportunity to ‘give up something for Lent’. At the end of that period there is often a great glut of consumption with chocolate overload. My gym is preparing us for this overindulgence now by exhorting us to burn calories in preparation!

So, knowing that modelling is at least 80% of parenting, what does this tell our children about self-control?

It is a good idea to teach children about moderation in consumption, or delayed gratification if not complete self-deprivation and maybe Lent is as good a time as any to do it. But maybe you want to introduce such ideas throughout the year rather than just one month?

My son had a highly impulsive temperament as a little boy and got into trouble a lot because of not stopping to think about his actions. On one memorable occasion he and his cousin dropped pebbles off the balcony of a high-rise apartment, not considering the consequences of that action. They didn’t think that the cars parked below might be damaged and that costs would be incurred and people would be upset. The parents were sorely tempted to come down hard with punishment and shouting (there had been plenty of that on previous occasions) but by then we knew that approach would have led to resentment without any learning. Instead the boys were (relatively) calmly held accountable and required to make amends and so took a step toward gaining some perspective and some self-control.

Here are some ideas to encourage children to be able to make choices for the future that depend on some sacrifice in the present, to show self-control:

  • Start with realistic expectations. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with perspective and impulse control and this is not fully developed until early adulthood so don’t expect young children to be very good at not sucking their thumbs for the sake of their future orthodontic health! Our children can learn self-control if we are non-critical teachers.
  • As always what we model counts for so much. What do they see us doing in the way of saving for coveted items or putting time into a project that will benefit us long term, such as study? When we slip up in the pursuit of our goals do they see us giving up or accepting that we’re human and trying again? Rather than berating our lack of will power we can talk about what strategies we’ll use to get back on track. We may need to draw attention to what we do so that they take on these family values. Cringey, I know, but this is how children learn from us.
  • After you’ve set a good example, what do you require your children to do? Many families will have rules like homework is done first before screens can be accessed. Some families will have tripartite pocket money systems whereby children must save some and give some away as well as being able to spend some.
  • Notice and comment whenever your children show self-control. Eg “You were really cross with Jason just then but you didn’t hit him. You told him loudly that you don’t like it when he messes with your Lego.” “You made a healthy eating choice when you only took 2 biscuits, even though those are your favourites.” “That was a good strategy to do your Biology homework first when you were fresh. I know that’s the most challenging at the moment.”
  • Encourage self-control by showing it to the children. When they do something you don’t like, push the pause button and consider the reason for the behaviour. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren’t trying to get at you. What did they really need in that moment and how can you help them repair the situation?
  • Describe how they feel in words so that they develop stronger connections between the emotional part of their brains and the logical part. Impulse-control depends on being able to access your cool brain and tell yourself, yes I’d love to play Minecraft all day but it takes away from time with my family and friends. Describing to them how they feel gives them a measure of control over those feelings. Name it to tame it.
  • Developing self-control depends on having opportunities to make choices. This means parents shouldn’t micro-manage but step back and allow children to learn from their choices. Sometimes asking questions can channel a child’s thinking in the right direction better than telling them what to do.

In a world where many act to fulfil only their own desires and get into difficulties by not stopping to think teaching self-control is an amazing gift for your children.

For many more ideas like these look no further than Real Parenting for Real Kids: Enabling parents to bring out the best in their children (published on 27th April 2016). www.theparentpractice.com

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March 07th, 2016

Why are they so weird? Understanding Teenagers

Up until the 20th century, children entered adult society earlier and were surrounded by adults providing examples - they worked alongside adults. Now teenagers learn from their peers and the media as well as from adults. 

The notion of adolescence as a separate category only really emerged in the 1950’s when there evolved a separate culture of music and fashion. The period of adolescence has now been extended by prolonged economic dependence with children living at home often well into their twenties. 

Puberty is occurring earlier due to improvements in nutrition but there is some doubt that emotional maturity happens any earlier. Our kids look like adults which affects our expectations of their behaviour but in many ways they are still immature. On top of this there is much blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood with our Peter Pan culture and love of all things youthful. 

Sometimes parents are really taken by surprise when their previously lovely child metamorphoses into an alien being, complete with strange language, belligerent attitude and risky behaviours. 

Why are they so weird?

So what causes this transformation? Hormones have always taken the rap of course but research in recent  years shows that the brain restructuring that happens in adolescence is also to blame. 

Teenagers’ brains go through changes which allow them to develop enhanced powers of perspective, criticism, abstract thought, hindsight and memory; these can create difficulties for them and affect their behaviour. They develop new awareness of existential aloneness and self-consciousness emerges. A dip in self-esteem is the norm and many teens experience depression. Adolescents go through many obvious physical changes during puberty and become tremendously self-conscious about their bodies. They are so aware of the changes that are so apparent that they assume everyone else is looking at them too. Parents can get frustrated with this apparent self-absorption. 

Teens develop a very strong desire to spend time with their peers, sometimes rejecting family in the process. Friends are very important to allow teenagers to sever links with family before finding the emotional nourishment of a mate. Over-dependence on peers can be a problem for teenagers who don’t feel sufficiently appreciated at home. It’s very easy for parents of teenagers to fall into habits of criticising as parents are nervous about teen behavior and choices. When teens feel appreciated at home they still adopt family values on important issues of health, safety, education, career etc. 

Teens take risks. Sometimes unhealthy risks. This is partly because the changes in their frontal lobes make it hard for them to evaluate risks. Much risk-taking behaviour takes place in the presence of their peers. The urge to fit in with or impress their peers makes it even harder to weigh the risk of the behavior they are contemplating. 

Teens argue. They need to as they work out who they are and what they believe in. 

It is the job of a teenager:

  • To take steps towards independence
  • To achieve clearer emotional separation from his family
  • To emerge as a separate independent person with his own identity and values and be able to think for himself
  • To be competent and responsible for his own needs, feelings and behaviours
  • To develop as a sexual being 

It is the job of a parent:

  • To support and affirm moves towards independence and the development of a sense of identity
  • To continue to provide values and boundaries
  • To expect responsible thinking, problem-solving and self-determination
  • To accept the teen’s feelings and opinions (this doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them!)

Negotiating adolescence 

For a (relatively) smooth ride through adolescence parents need to:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. The onus is on the adult to make sure channels of communication remain open. It’s not enough to say my teen won’t talk to me.
  • Teens do listen when parents avoid criticising, nagging, judging, lecturing and advising. Ears open up when young people expect to hear positive things.
  • Teenagers need to be appreciated probably even more than younger children as their confidence takes a real hit at this time. Make sure praise is credible and meaningful. “I noticed that you’ve been setting your alarm clock to get yourself up a lot lately.” “I really admire the effort you’re putting in with your piano practice. It’s not easy to keep going with something when success isn’t instant.” “This is the third time this week you’ve remembered to lay out your clothes in the evening. Your organisational skills are really improving.” “You put your games things in the wash straightaway. That way they’ll be available when you need them next. You’re becoming much more responsible for your own things.”
  • When adults actively look for the good things in their teens they can see the humour, passion and intelligence of the emerging adult, and maybe occasionally some responsibility. Don’t miss it!
  • Always assume your teen is trying to get things right and will make mistakes. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He had a reason for doing what he did. (Although he may not know what it was.) It’s the parent’s job to look behind the aggravating/dangerous/inappropriate behaviour for a possible reason.
  • Parents need to provide boundaries even though teens don’t want them/think they need them. Empathise that that is a pain and that parents are mean control-freaks.
  • Empathise a lot. Understand how it feels to be them. Acknowledge that they feel stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, frustrated, angry, disappointed, hurt, betrayed, misunderstood….etc.
  • Teens will talk, and even share problems, if they don’t get judged or yelled at. Of course parents shout when taken by surprise but as soon as they’ve calmed down they need to put judgment to one side and help your child to problem-solve. They need help from your mature brain. 

Good luck and enjoy your awesome adolescent.

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